In the Presence of an Emperor

One of the most entertaining moments I have had recently was down to an insect. Not just any insect, though, something large and colourful – and to its prey, deadly, too. On a warm September afternoon, the Lovely Wife and I stood watching as it hunted, quartering the territory around us as you see large birds of prey do – looking for the moment to grab its prey out of the air and consume it immediately on the wing. It totally ignored us, of course, bar ensuring that it did not actually fly into either of us.

The hunter in question was an Emperor Dragonfly, about 7 cm long, clad beautifully in blue and green, all of which was picked out in the bright sun. Anax Imperator (I admit to looking that up) is a truly impressive sight. It was mostly blue, apparently that makes it likely to have been the male (yes, looked that up too).

The Lovely Wife and I were at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, not far from Ely. The nature reserve, run by the National Trust, includes one of the only fragments of authentic Fen land among a man-made landscape of rich arable farming, droves and waterways. Apparently, it is well known for its dragonflies, and certainly this reputation seemed well earned as we walked along, quickly losing count of the species that seemed to be active. I have always had a soft spot for dragonflies, there is something wonderfully archaic – and for good reasons, similar animals ruled the skies long before the dinosaurs – and yet they are such wonderful aerial acrobats. They are, as you might say, a design classic (and before my biologist friends protest I just mean that, like the original Mini there are cases where something just comes together and perpetuates because, frankly, it’s pretty hard to improve on). They are also terrifying predators, tiny aerial sharks and wo betide any smaller beastie that cannot get out of the way fast enough. They are equally terrifying – if considerably less attractive – in their larval stage. A couple of years I was pond dipping in the garden and fished up a dragonfly nymph – frankly the thing made me nervous, and to them I am this incomprehensible behemoth.

Watching the Emperor trying to catch some of its smaller brethren, I did wonder about the whole concept of scale. It is something I think about every time I, or someone I am with, has their quiet drink in the pub disrupted by a wasp; or the abject terror that some people have of the tiniest spider. To these creatures, even instinctively, we must be too big to compute. To the dragonflies we might as well have been trees, indeed the Lovely Wife joked that since we were standing stock still watching the show, there was every chance that one of the many dragonflies hovering around us might decide were provided a convenient perch (as it happens, we were spared that, this time). But that wasp in the pub is not out to get us – we are just this huge living thing getting in the way, and most of the time they would just ignore us; the real problem is that much of the time we cannot ignore them.

That same day we watched a wasp attempting to prey on honeybees that were intent on their normal work on a flowering bush. Every time the wasp pounced on one of the bees, the intending victim simply dropped to the ground like a stone, effectively getting it away from its attacker. We watched the wasp try again and again, and each time to bees responded in the same way, and then flew back up into the bush to continue their business. Small things can be fascinating, and wasp v bee was another special insect moment.

But it was not a patch on our encounter with the Emperor.

 

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wicken-fen-nature-reserve

https://british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/emperor-dragonfly

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The Problems of Being a Hoarder

I am a hoarder by nature. Beyond the obviously ephemeral, I have considerable trauma in getting rid of anything that has featured in my life, whether that be books, souvenirs, theatre programmes or a particular bugbear of mine, guidebooks to places I have visited. They just keep building up and gradually take over wherever I live to the point where it starts to become a nuisance.

I kind of grew into this; my parents were both hoarders too, so the recent efforts to clear my childhood home have been around clearing a lot of what can only be described as ‘stuff’. Some of this ‘stuff’ is useful and beyond the things that we wanted to keep – might come to that at some later point – anything we can find a home for we are keen to do – and so far we are doing pretty well via charity of specific rehoming, and that has made the whole process a lot easier than it might have been. But then there is the ‘stuff’ that no one would really want – the broken ornaments, the ‘rest your ash here’ ashtray in the shape of a toilet (and its ilk) – which I have no real idea what to do with. In the end, the very nice house clearance people that we used to clear the garden and garage waste (as an aside for those of you in the North I can heartily recommend Mawsons, based in the Team Valley, they were very good) will have to deal with what’s left – I cannot bring myself to put these kind of things in the bin, because, well, my Dad kept them for some reason. Possibly he did not notice them anymore, in the same way that you become acclimatised to a pervading smell. I don’t know. Maybe the house clearance folks will take a shine to something – they adopted the five-foot stuffed crocodile from a previous job after all – and that is a minor consolation.

What this process has brought home to me is my own situation. The Lovely Wife and I have no children. I am not sure of either of us want to leave a nightmare of a job to the executers of our will when we are no longer here. And, as things stand, that would be the case – and, with all hope, we have decades to add to the problem.

The alternative is to try and start making things simpler now.

People are reluctant to talk about the end of life and often avoid talking about it, but it is inevitable, and we do our friends and families and injustice by not doing at least the minimum of preparation. As an adult you should have a will, no matter how young you are, if only to make your wishes clear on what should happen in the case of your passing. It is very comforting to know that you are executing the wishes of the deceased, and that there is legal certainty around that. We have a will and, for various reasons, need to revise it, but I also need to start organising my ‘stuff’ so that when the time comes it is easier to deal with. It does not necessarily mean gifting things to others or indeed disposing of things although that will come into it, nor does it mean I intend quitting this earth anytime soon – I’m also looking forward to a less cluttered existence and when I think about ‘health’ as I look towards fifty, there is more to it than the obvious physical state to think about if the next phase of life is going to be an enjoyable and sustainable one.

House Proud

My parent’s house has never looked so good. The garden paving has been cleared of weeds by the Lovely Wife in a systematic campaign carried out over a sunny North East day in a successful way that attempts to keep them at bay using chemicals never really achieved showing that getting on your knees with a sharp knife and a strong attention to detail is not really beatable (and probably better for the environment). The Sea Holly, a massive thistle like thing I very nearly pulled out as a weed is magnificent in a shade of prickly purple and covered in bees; most of what I have planted over the year has survived the heat and is looking healthy enough.

Inside the house the clutter of a lifetime has mostly gone. The removals people have been, efficiently removing the furniture we want to keep to a mysterious location (OK, a temperature-controlled facility in Longbenton, but I do like to think of it as the massive warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark of the Covenant finds its resting place). The ornaments we like are packed up and stored elsewhere; the rubbish has been cleared by David and his teenager Josh, working for a lovely local business we will be using when the final moments come. The Lovely Wife has cleaned everything and now the house has minimal furniture and ornaments tastefully arranged in that way that reminds you of those adverts which show houses that cannot possible be being lived in on a regular basis, but have just the right amount of fittings that allow for the fact that many people have no imagination and need to be informed that ‘this is the bedroom’ or ‘you can put you family pictures here’.

People have asked me how it is going, how I am managing getting my childhood home, and the happy marriage home for my parents ready for sale. It is not an easy question to answer. In practical terms, it has gone very well. We have been organized, we have had some great help from a practically skilled good friend fixing minor but glaring problems which has been invaluable (thank you, you know who you are). There has been a certain pleasure in getting everything as beautiful as we can, as a tribute to Dad and Mum… And of course, it has been deeply upsetting for both of us. In fact, now that we have more or less finished anything we can do – now it is up to the Estate Agent to a certain extent – we look around and have very mixed feelings about selling. For a brief moment, a few weeks, this is our ‘other’ house and we will miss it and all the memories that it holds, even in its current slightly unreal state. This year we have effectively lived in two houses at opposite ends of the A1(M) and in many respects have been more part of the community in Pelton than in St Albans – whether that be enjoying moments of relaxation and ridiculously cheap (but rather nice) beer at the Newfield Inn around the corner, or being reminded what it is like to be almost the youngest people in a church community of about 35 rather than one that number 100s. We’ll even miss the COOP in the village and its surprisingly good Brie. In my mind I think we have had our chance to live in a different place and while I am looking forward to getting back to something like normal I do think 2018 will have left some fundamental changes – I will not say scars – in how I at least see things.

The house will not be ours soon, but I think it will leave something of a permanent legacy for us, practically and otherwise.

W is for Watership Down

I’m about twelve and in an English lesson at school. My favourite lesson in fact, one where we just sat for the entire hour reading whatever book we were reading at the time. I loved reading at the time and still do, although I have to admit that my reading was mostly quite one track, namely endless Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories, to the continuing despair of my English teacher. ‘At least you are reading something’ was the best he could offer in my defence. But this week was different. In my hands was a hardback book from the Local Library. It had a cover that was not the most exciting thing in the world; it was just a photograph of some rabbits sitting in a sun kissed field (actually highly inappropriate in many ways for this book). The book was by Richard Adams and was of course ‘Watership Down’.

Now this was not the first time I had read this book – it was maybe the tenth or eleventh time since I had picked it up for the first time at the age of about eight. I have no idea why I came to read it – it was not one of the books my parents knew anything about – maybe I heard about from someone at school. I don’t know. All I did know is that I fell in love with it straight away and it is still my favourite book (if you pushed me – ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is close behind and as an aside I cannot wait for the BBC TV adaptation, albeit with a tiny amount of trepidation – but only tiny as Gaiman is so involved in it, surely they cannot screw it up?). Nevertheless, my English teacher was delighted that I was now reading a ‘proper’ book. He was less enamoured when I decided to reread it a few further times that year, but in the final reckoning, I refer you to the ’at least he’s reading’ sentiment once more.

Of the thousands of books that I have read, why should this book still have such a resonance with me? Good question. Partly it is the time I first experienced a fully nuanced novel that even as a child I could see worked on different levels (for some of the people I know this might be books by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis or Mervyn Peake). I was always someone I would describe as a naturalist at heart so anything about animals is going to be well received at least at the outset, but this was probably an entry point and nothing more. Looking back today though, I think it gave me the kind of story I like the most, an interesting ensemble cast of characters that, in this case, just happen to be rabbits. As a child, my favourite character was Blackberry – the bright one, basically – but I found them all well drawn and ‘real’. Add on top of that a simple but well thought out rabbit culture, language and mythology (danger: Allegory alert) and I was sold.

But it is Hazel that is the centre of the book. If you want an example of what the ideal leader looks like it is arguably the central character. On the surface he appears only average, but in reality, he is the reason for anything good that happens; he listens to others, he learns what everyone’s skills are and then uses them; he doesn’t look down on anyone, even a humble mouse (and I will not spoil the story to say how crucial that attitude turns out to be). And, when it needs to be, he is heroic and prepared to die for his people (particularly when he confronts the main antagonist near the end). If I had to aspire to be a character in a book – this is who I would want to be.

Please read this book if you never have; do not be biased by the 1980s animated version, which has it charms but is fatally flawed in my opinion – mostly because you lose the complexity of the characters. Some of you will fall in love, I’m sure.

V is for Very Lucky

It was something of a respite for us at the weekend to have a long weekend in Hampshire on our own, in lush, gorgeous arable countryside with perhaps more than our fair share of sun. It was beautiful walking weather – bright, sunny but not too hot – and the area we were in, sandwiched between Ringwood and Salisbury, was full of interest, historical and natural. As I have commented before, when we walk the Lovely Wife and I also do quite a lot of talk and as this increasingly weird and complicated year continues to surprise there is always plenty to talk about, even when not discussing the sights we see along the way.

One ritual is the review of the day, for both where we went, what we saw and what surprised and delighted. Sunday was a particular pleasure, kicked off with a Roman villa and graduating via two Saxon churches, a hill fort and a medieval turf labyrinth which more than satisfied my history needs. But as is often the case it is the smaller, often wildlife moments that stick in the mind. The huge Devil’s Coachman Beetle on the path as we climbed out of Rockbourne, or the slow worm sunning itself on the footbath up to that village’s church. Or perhaps the two Brown Hares having a face off in one of the fields we passed later in the day, largely oblivious to us in the midst of whatever dispute they were mutually engaged with.

We needed the respite. I go back up to see my father again later this week, he continues to hang on in there although is becoming increasingly tired. I have been very blessed though with having the opportunity to spend so much time with him these last six months and we have had plenty of time to talk and say what we need to say to each other, something many people do not have the luxury of. My main worry for him now is to stop him getting bored, although cheeky exchanges with some of the Nursing Home staff (some of whom are very colourful in their own right), a supply of sweets and endless editions of NCIS and its various spinoffs on the TV seem to be keeping him pretty happy – if a little confused, as watching through the day across different channels does mean that there is no continuity of characters. But, hey, it’s just fairly entertaining hokum and taken in that sense it does not make a vast amount of difference if you are seeing it in the right order or not.

No one knows how long this will last and I have now learned not to really think about it too much. I cannot affect what will happen, so we will concentrate on what we can effect, being there for him as much as we can considering the other plates we need to spin for us and for friends and family. The support from everyone has been wonderful; and I have to also say that my work – I work for Procter & Gamble – have been hugely supportive, and I am constantly aware that with a less flexible and understanding employer this whole period would be much less tolerable. So we soldier on, and take each week as it comes.

U is for ‘Upstairs”

My Dad can be a funny old sausage sometimes. In the twilight of his time with us he has continued a lifelong ability to make me laugh, intentionally and otherwise. On one side, when we see him now in his nursing home it is nice to see him enjoying an ongoing banter with the carers and laundry/cleaning ladies; several of them drop in for a chat as unlike many of his fellow inmates he is still interested and able to make conversation. Unintentionally though, he does come up with some classics.

One of these is the mysterious conspiracy of ‘them upstairs’. My Dad’s explanation for any perceived delay in anyone coming to tend to him after he has pressed his ‘attention’ button –  never far from his hands now that he has realised what it is really for – is down to the machinations of the mysterious cabal that rules the ‘upstairs’ (cue pointing upstairs as one might to heaven). Apparently these mysterious masters control the poor workers (the carers) and therefore responsible for any delay in service. I think it is fair to say we have still managed to keep a straight face most of the time at these conspiratorial revelations, but sometimes we struggle. It is utter nonsense of course. He is referring to the nurses who are based on both levels of the home (in fact, as my Dad has not been outside his room, he has not realised that the ground floor nurse’s station is just outside his own room. The response times for assistance I have seen – and I’ve been in enough over the last few months to judge – are pretty fast and effective, and my Dad has nothing to complain about. It is mainly because he has no real sense of time these days, and he does not really understand the division of labour between the care staff and the medical staff, and conspiracy thrives in an environment where there is limited information or rife misunderstanding.

Conspiracy theories, or more broadly, the ability to believe things in the presence of hard facts to the contrary never cease to amaze me. Now let me be clear what I mean here. I’m talking about empirical, simple questions. Is the Earth flat? Did the moon landings happen? Does the Loch Ness Monster exist? That kind of stuff (In my opinion, no, yes and yes – everyone knows since the 1970s that Nessie is a Zygon bred cybernetic hybrid, duh). It is entirely clear to me how people can believe in higher powers or ghosts or in ‘alternative medicine’ as the history of human existence in my opinion is defined by an overreaching fact that there is more to the world then we think; that’s also the joy of science as it rarely proves to be as simple as we first thought. I like to keep an open mind because I find life is a lot more fun that way.

But on something that is sitting in front of you screaming its reality and to still not see it; that I struggle with. I guess the simple truth is that we are as a species excellent at deciding to not see the things that upset our world view. If pressure is applied to that world view then we surround ourselves with others that share that view as a defence and reinforcement – if you had been looking at my Twitter feed in June 2016 you would have gone to bed, as I did, feeling confident that common sense would prevail over the EU referendum. Which just goes to show I am as guilty as anyone else in not seeing a reality I would rather not see.

T is for Taking Action

Or not. There is an adage that bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing. Despite being an old romantic who grew up, and indeed still love, stories of men and women who would risk all to do The Right Thing, I constantly disappoint myself by not living up to that image. Time and again, and I’ve noticed that the more I think about it, the more I notice it (not surprising really), I feel I have let myself down by not speaking up and pointing out something that just isn’t right. Then again, on reflection sometimes I wonder what the Right Thing was. I’ll give examples.

I was walking past the church I have been attending in the North, where the graveyard has been planted with hundreds of daffodils. It’s very pretty and the last few days of sun have brought them all out in flower. Coming back up the hill from seeing my Dad in his nursing home I noticed ahead of me four or five kids, likely in their early teens, in what seems the regulation clothing of kids where I grew up at this point in time, i.e. track pants and hoodie for the boys, leggings and something shapeless for the girls. They were engaged in a wanton act of flower vandalism involving yanking up daffodils and using them as impromptu swords to engage in mortal combat across the road (showing little regard for the traffic but for some reason up my old neck of the woods someone has surgically removed any road sense from all of the kids and most of the adults). As I came up the hill towards the miscreants I was all ready to give them a telling off, but by the time I had reached them they had stopped and now sat chatting (amongst the evidence of their vandalism). I didn’t say anything, but just walked past. A glance back later showed that the game had not resumed.

I wondered at the time if I should have said something, but actually I’m glad I didn’t. For one, I did not need to, my presence was why they stopped, they knew what they were doing was wrong. Secondly, I know what it is like to grow up in an ex mining village in County Durham – very, very boring. So I kind of understand the need to find any source of entertainment. And finally, their de flowering had absolutely no impact on the glory of the overall display. So I will let myself off that one.

However, a few days later I was guilty of inaction. On a brief sojourn South the Lovely Wife and I were enjoying one of our strolls. As we neared home, a young couple in their 20s walked past us deep in conversation. This is not a problem. What was a problem was the young man casually throwing his cigarette packet on the ground and walking on as though this was the most natural thing in the world (well, I guess unfortunately for him that is the case). I should have said something. I should have, at the very least, picked up and disposed of the litter myself. But I didn’t. I looked away and tried to forget. Which, as I am writing this several days later, I have obviously failed to do.

I do not know why I did not say anything. It is not as though I am easily intimidated by someone little more than a boy, and by now the amount of grey in my beard should remind me that I should be getting to that stage of life where speaking your mind becomes mostly automatic. But for some reason I said nothing and missed a chance to perhaps change someone’s behaviour long term – if I am guilty of anything I feel that was my error. Next time, I’ll do better.